Texas Education Agency (TEA) Stands in Defiance of Abbott, Allowing Communities to Decide on Mask Mandates

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In May, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order “prohibiting governmental entities in Texas—including counties, cities, school districts, public health authorities, or government officials—from requiring or mandating mask wearing.” In particular, Abbott came down on school districts trying to protect children and teachers by requiring masks. The order stated: “After June 4, no student, teacher, parent, or other staff member or visitor can be required to wear a mask while on campus.”

From that point forward, schools were trapped in a situation where they could either defy Abbott and face prosecution by gleefully zealous state Attorney General Ken Paxton, or put their students at risk by placing them in schools they knew to be unsafe. Paxton warned schools that Texas would “vigorously fight” any school district that defied Abbott’s order and threatened districts with fines for noncompliance. But as the school year approached, multiple school districts determined that having Abbott and Paxton angry at them was better than having children in the ICU, So, as WFAA in Dallas reported last week, the number of districts willing to thumb their nose at Abbott’s order began to grow swiftly.

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Just days after classes began, the Associated Press reported that four school districts in Texas were forced to close when large numbers of students and staff members fell ill. That same day, Abbott himself tested positive for COVID-19 after he was seen glad-handing without a mask at multiple Republican events. Abbott sent messages to reassure the state that he was doing well, but the knowledge that the governor was getting deluxe care that included a booster shot and a dose of monoclonal antibodies didn’t exactly endear him to the parents of kids who aren’t eligible for either treatment.

On Thursday, the Tyler Morning Telegraph reported that Paxton had sent a letter of warning to schools that he said “have unlawfully imposed mask mandates.” By that point, it was a long, long list. It included districts like Paris, which hoped to find a way around Abbott’s unsafe rules by making masks part of the school district’s dress code. And it included several districts like El Paso, which, as Spectrum News reports, had already made it clear they were prepared to sue the governor to protect the kids under their care.

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Then on Thursday evening, with dozens of school districts and almost as many courts lined up against them, Team Evil folded. Abbott didn’t withdraw his executive order, but for now at least, the state will no longer attempt to enforce his counter sensible command.

On Thursday, ABC featured Abbott insisting there was “no loophole” for adding masks to the dress code. The governor’s office issued a statement saying that “Governor Abbott has been clear that the time for mask mandates is over” and reiterating that “no governmental entity or school district can require or mandate the wearing of masks.” Following this, Paxton sent his threatening letters to an astounding 49 school districts—including the dress-code-changing Paris—which he considered to be in violation of Abbott’s order.

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All those schools should definitely hang onto that letter and mount it proudly in a place where students and visiting parents can see. Because less than eight hours after those papers went out, they became paper tigers.

Facing lawsuits from multiple districts—and without a single decent argument to make for why children should be subjected to an avoidable risk—the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced Thursday evening that Abbott’s ban on mask mandates would no longer be enforced.

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Several of those district court cases are going forward, and the ban on banning might itself be banned should courts come down on Abbott’s side. But based on the actions the TEA took in giving districts the go-ahead, it certainly doesn’t seem as if Abbott and Paxton believe they’re on the winning side of this issue. It’s unclear just how much of Texas taxpayers’ money they’re willing to burn in a fight to endanger Texas taxpayers’ kids.

On Thursday, Texas reported over 17,000 new cases of COVID-19, edging out Florida for the most new cases in the nation. In Florida, 60 school districts are now in defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on masks. As the Orlando Sentinel reported on Wednesday, DeSantis’ poll numbers have dropped over the last month, and what seemed to be an almost invulnerable position a month ago has become very spongy in response to DeSantis’ handling of the delta wave.

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